Departing from Pro Recco, Ratko Rudic, Legendary Water Polo Coach, Concludes His Career

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Ratko Rudic, arguably the greatest coach in water polo history, has had ended his career ended by Covid-19. Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scarfi

With his two-year contract with Pro Recco concluded, the career of Ratko Rudic, the most successful coach in water polo history, is over.

pro-recco-logoFrancesco Grillone, who edits the WaterPoloItaly.com site, reports that—as expected—the 72-year-old Rudic will retire as head coach for the Biancocelesti. After being quarantined in Genoa for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, the native Croatian has been allowed to return to his home in Zagreb.

[Dispatches from Italy: Claudio Mangini Interviews Ratko Rudic, Master Water Polo Coach]

The four-time Olympic gold medal winning coach, achieved with three different national teams, ends his sublime career on a decidedly down note, a result of the pandemic that devastated Italy as well as the world—and resulted in a premature ending to LEN Champions League competition. Pro Recco, which this year was expected to contend for a record ninth Champions League title, was forced to suspend its season just prior to a March 3rd meeting in Budapest with Ferencvaros, last year’s LEN Cup winner.

All league play was suspended in early March; earlier this week LEN President Paolo Barelli announced the cancellation of the remainder of the season, meaning that Rudic’s illustrious coaching career will end short of a LEN championship, the only major title he did not capture. Pro Recco is not only the leading club in the famed Italian Serie A competition—known as the Settebello—with 33 titles. By almost all measures they are the most successful professional water polo club in the world.

From 2002 to 2012 the Biancocelesti advanced to eight LEN finals, capturing five cups. This season, with a line-up stocked with Filip Filipovic—regularly acknowledged to be the world’s best player—Francesco Di Fulvio, Swimming World 2019 Male Water Polo Player of the YearAleksandar Ivović, Joe Kayes and Dusan Mandic, Pro Recco was favored to get to the 2020 Final Eight title match, an achievement the club missed out on last year in Hannover, Germany, when the Biancocelesti dropped a one-goal semifinal decision to Olympiacos.

Lessons with the Legends - Ratko Rudic - Swimming World July 2019

Rudic coaching Team USA. Photo Courtesy: USAWP

No matter how this season played out, Rudic’s legacy is beyond reproach. Starting his playing career in 1963 for VK Jadran in the Yugoslavian professional leagues, in 1971 he moved to VK Partizan, where he won two LEN championships.

A core member of the great Yugoslovian sides that dominated international polo in the 1960s and 1970s, Rudic was injured during the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where his teammates beat the Soviet Union for Olympic gold.

Turning his considerable talents to coaching, in 1984 and 1988 he led Yugoslavia to Olympic gold, both times edging out the United States. During the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the host Americans lost out due to goal differential. In 1988, Team USA dropped a 9-7 decision in the Olympic final to again fall short. In 1992, Rudic led Italy to gold at the Barcelona Games, a feat of three-straight Olympic titles that would be matched by Denes Kemeny, head coach of the great Hungarian squads of 2000, 2004 and 2008.

At the invitation of Bruce Wigo, then the executive director of U.S. Water Polo, in 2001, Rudic—one of sport’s greatest international coaches—came to America, assuming leadership of the U.S. men. Despite completely overhauling the training regime of Team USA, the Americans finished a disappointing seventh at the 2004 Athens Games, ultimately leading Rudic to return to Croatia and assume leadership of his homeland’s national program.

Despite his departure, many attribute the U.S. men’s unexpected run to finals of the 2008 Beijing Games to a foundation that Rudic built. The Americans, coached by Terry Schroeder—who as a player had twice been denied gold by Yugoslavians in the 1984 and 1988 Games—dropped the gold medal match to Hungary.

[From the Vault: Pepperdine’s Schroeder Talks NCAA Water Polo, 2016 US Olympic Men, MPSF & GCC Split]

Rudic’s leadership in his native land produced the ultimate result. In 2012, the Croatians vanquished Italy in the final, a result that not only gave their coach an unparalleled four Olympic titles, but appeared to complete the circuit of Rudic’s illustrious career.

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After the 2016 win over Serbia. Photo Courtesy: Laszlo Balgoh

But the peripatetic coach was not done yet. In what turned out to be an electrifying move, prior to the 2016 Rio games he signed on with the Brazilian men’s team.

In what might be considered the crowning achievement of his coaching career, Brazil, which had not competed in Olympic competition for three decades (1984), stunned eventual gold medalist Serbia 6-5 in group play.

Host Brazil did not win again in Olympic play, finishing eighth, but the victory over the Serbs lives on, as goalkeeper Slobodan Soro—a native Serbian brought to Rio by Rudic to backstop a young Brazilian side—remained in South America and was in goal for Brazil at the 2019 Pan American Games.

[On The Record with Slobodan Soro, Brazil Men’s Water Polo Goalie]

In a surprising move, following what might have been for many a fitting conclusion to a successful career, in 2018 Rudic came out of retirement to take the reins of Pro Recco. The Biancocelesti were seeking to recapture the magic of years past; they had not won a LEN title since 2015, and Rudic appeared to be the ideal coach to lead them back to a championship.

After a disappointing finish in Hannover in 2019, Rudic never got another chance to see if he would have made a difference in Recco.

In a statement released earlier today, Pro Recco President Maurizio Felugo saluted his club’s esteemed coach.

“We are honored that Rudic has been the protagonist of our story! It was a great privilege to deal daily with a person of his substance,” President Felugo said. “In these two years he has been around the club, he has brought a winning mentality, competence, professionalism and work ethic.

“I greet you with regret for not being able to finish the season—but we will be forever grateful. The footprints [Rudic] left on our journey will remain indelible in the new structure built to return Pro Recco to top the world water polo.”

Adam Wright, a three-time U.S. Olympian (2004, 2008, 2012) who trained under Rudic while preparing for the 2004 Athens Games, was forthright in his admiration for his former coach.

“The legacy has clearly been set in stone and his impact on our game will never be forgotten,” Wright said in an email. “The game of water polo would not be where it is today without Ratko Rudic.”

[Wright: Retiring Rudic “The Greatest”]

Then, alluding to how pervasive Covid-19’s impact has been, the UCLA men’s and women’s coach added: “Although things did not end the way any of us wanted for him this year, he has nothing to look back on. You cannot take away what Ratko Rudic has done—and what he has done is unmatched.”

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